The Company of Players – Shakespeare Songs
The Company of Players – 26 January 2018
The brainchild of Jess Distill, this 10-strong contemporary folk supergroup also features her Said the Maiden compatriots Minnie Birch and Kathy Pilkinton, Sam Kelly, Lukas Drinkwater, Daria Kulesh, Chris Cleverley, Kelly Oliver, Hannah Elizabeth and Kim Lowings. It was conceived as a performance project to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the idea being to write a collection of original songs inspired by different plays. At the end of an intense week-long collective writing session in Derbyshire, they emerged with 14 songs, 10 of which (11 if you find a limited edition featuring the hidden instrumental) now form this debut album, produced by Kelly, exploring themes of gender roles, mental illness and the displacement of refugees.
It opens with the suitably foreboding Black Spirits, Pilkington’s arrangement of the famous opening lines from Macbeth, spoken by the witches as well as their speech at the start of Act IV, Kelly providing the percussion supplementing the drone backdrop to vocals by himself, Cleverley, Oliver and the trio.
From tragedy to comedy, Birch provides, Up and Down, an airy pastoral song of love, weddings and forests drawing up the flight of the star-crossed lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She plays the guitar and sings lead, accompanied by Oliver and Cleverley on acoustic and Drinkwater on electric guitars, Kelly on mandolin and Pilkinton on clarinet.
One of the loveliest melodies comes courtesy of Kim Lowings who, backed by electric and acoustic guitars and a mandolin solo by Kelly, sings and plays the dulcimer on Gather Round. With its circling melody and infectious chorus, it draws on Prospero’s words of reassurance to his daughter Miranda in The Tempest for a song about the mysteries of the world and the search for identity.
Another personal favourite is But Thinking Makes It So, a dreamily melodic meditation on the human condition and mental illness with advancing years written and sung by Cleverley inspired by Hamlet and featuring Lowings on piano, Drinkwater on double bass and Elizabeth on fiddle, with backing vocals from the whole company.
Hamlet’s also the source for Method in the Madness, a collaboration between Distill and Lowings that draws on his exile and plans of revenge, their voices joined by Distill for a sprightly bluegrass-inflected hoedown driven by Cleverley’s banjo augmented by mandolin, fiddle harmonica and spoons.
It’s a return to A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Lowings’ waltzing piano-based The Song of the Philomel, fiddle, flute and clarinet adding a courtly touch to words inspired by Titania’s lullaby, the title referring to both a 19th-century string instrument and an archaic name for the nightingale.
At this point the limited edition has the brief droning, dissonant instrumental Interval, providing a suitable prelude to Daria Kulesh’s operatic-like contribution. This is Shakespeare once removed as, underlining her Russian background, she unfolds the first person murderous tale of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk based on Nikolai Leskov’s Macbeth-inspired Russian novella Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District, recently adapted as a chilling feature film starring Florence Pugh.
Again not strictly within the Shakespeare canon as such, another dreamily melodic number with a circling guitar line, Kelly Oliver’s You Must Needs Be Strangers takes its inspiration from Sir Thomas More, a biographical play of disputed authorship (ascribed to Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle), but generally agreed to include a hundred or so lines by old Bill. Adapting verses from the play, it revolves around a theme of exile and refugees, both on guitar Oliver and Kelly share lead with banjo, fiddle, piano and double bass accompaniment.
Elizabeth contributes the penultimate track, a setting of It Was A Lover and His Lass lifted from As You Like It, mandolin, fiddle, banjo and dulcimer underpinning the lurching rhythm with a strident arrangement that puts me in mind of Seth Lakeman. Finally, Jessica’s Sonnet, penned by Lowings, Kelly and Kelly Davis, an actress with Workington’s Theatre Royal Shakespeare Players. Arranged merely for just acoustic guitars and harmonica with the whole company on vocals, Jessica’s Sonnet is lyrically constructed around Jessica’s flight from her father, Shylock, risking all for love to elope with Lorenzo, in The Merchant of Venice.
It’s a fine conclusion to an album that deserves to be showered with awards, a testament to both the superb musicianship and songwriting skills of its assembled cast and the continuing relevance and durability of the world’s greatest playwright.
Order via Bandcamp: https://companyofplayers.bandcamp.com/album/shakespeare-songs